Korea may not have found its place in the sun just yet, but it has reached the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. As I write, Hwang Jang Yop, one of the principal architects of the North Korean political system, sits in the South Korean embassy in Beijing, an apparent defector. A man who had slipped out of the North 15 years before, said to be the nephew of a wife or paramour of Northern leader Kim Jong Il, has been gunned down in Seoul, allegedly the victim of a hit man sending a message to would-be defectors. Scandal laps at the feet of South Korean President Kim Young Sam as his friends and aides are arrested in a case involving the collapse of the giant Hanbo Steel Company and the loans and bribes that had kept it afloat. Labor unrest seethes in the South as President Kim and his party attempt to keep down wages to maintain their country's competitiveness in world markets. For Americans, questions about the possibility of famine and collapse in North Korea, Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, and the possibility of war on the peninsula loom over the immediate drama.

But most Americans are as ignorant about Korea as their leaders were in 1945 when they first ordered U.S. troops there. American policy toward Korea between 1945 and 1950 was disastrous, contributing to the division of a people and the precipitation of full-scale war between the Northern and Southern regimes in 1950. During the war, the Truman administration, having intervened to save the South from communism, suffered a catastrophic dose of "mission creep," seeing battlefield success as an opportunity to destroy Kim Il Sung's regime and reunify Korea under a noncommunist, perhaps even democratic, government. The ensuing conflict with the Chinese "volunteers" who came to Kim's rescue probably cost several million lives.

For the next 35 years or so, American presidents, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, were occupied with containing communism in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies. Although some fretted, most abetted, or at the very least tolerated, a series of brutal but aggressively anticommunist dictatorships in Seoul. They maintained American troops at the 38th parallel who were both a tripwire to deter Pyongyang and hostages to America's Korean ally. No American president, before the collapse of the Soviet Union or afterwards, was able to devise a policy that achieved more than an uneasy truce on the Korean peninsula. The Cold War has been over for nearly a decade, the U.S.S.R. disintegrated six years ago, but Korea remains divided into antagonistic halves -- and American troops are still there.

Now, astonishingly, the Clinton administration, noted for underachievement in foreign policy generally and Asian affairs in particular, seems to be performing brilliantly in Korea. Threading its way through territory mined with Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean anxieties, it has helped defuse crisis after crisis since 1994 and appears to be on the verge of getting North and South Koreans to sit down with Chinese and American representatives to discuss the possibility of formally ending the Korean War. Perhaps Bill Clinton can achieve what none of his predecessors came close to: the peaceful reunification of Korea.


No one has done more to call attention to the deficiencies of American policy toward Korea than Bruce Cumings, one of a handful of American scholars proficient in the difficult Korean language. His two-volume, 1500-page Origins of the Korean War quickly became the standard work on the subject, although it told readers more than anyone wanted to know. In recent years Cumings has participated in documentary films on Korean affairs, advised American leaders, and attempted to awaken the public to Korean issues, as in his February 1997 article in The Atlantic Monthly, which concluded with a call to bring American troops home from Korea. Unstinting in his criticism of the Seoul regime, American ignorance of Korea, and U.S. policies toward the peninsula, Cumings has proudly alienated the South Korean political elite and more than a few American academics, diplomats, and journalists. His new book, disappointingly, is relatively unprovocative -- perhaps an indication of how much of his argument has already been accepted.

No one disputes the need for an English-language survey of Korean history. The translation of Ki-baik Lee's useful A New History of Korea contains only 13 pages on the years since 1945 and ends in 1960. Korea Old and New: A History, published in 1990 and distributed by Harvard University Press, is based on Ki-baik Lee's work but provides extensive coverage of the twentieth century by other scholars, including a superb account of the years 1945-90 by Carter Eckert. As Korean studies grow in the United States, stimulated by the Korea Foundation's generous, though controversial, funding, the necessary monographic foundation for broad interpretive work is slowly being constructed. Cumings' book, much of which reads like a chat with his seminar students, should generate interest in the field and make Korea's past and present more accessible to nonspecialists.

Cumings offers a quick survey of Korea from prehistoric times to 1860. He looks a little more closely at events from 1860 to 1945, but almost two-thirds of the book is focused on the years since 1945. Discussions of liberation, division, the Korean War, and industrial development in the South, a fascinating sketch of the North since 1953, and an idiosyncratic chapter on Koreans in America signal Cumings' principal interests. His affection for the Korean people and their culture is apparent throughout, as is his contempt for their leaders.

Particularly interesting for the historian is Cumings' struggle to adjust to new evidence from Chinese and Soviet archives. Thanks to his earlier efforts, everyone now knows the Korean civil war did not begin on that June day in 1950 when North Korean forces attacked across the 38th parallel. No reputable scholar would deny the provocations of Syngman Rhee's South Korean regime. Cumings has persuaded most in the field that no foreign country was more involved or more intrusive in the internal affairs of Korea between 1945 and 1950 than the United States. Few would question his characterization of Kim Il Sung as a Korean patriot determined to reunify his country rather than the Soviet puppet of previous interpreters. But Cumings is wrong to dismiss the evidence David Holloway and Kathryn Weathersby have uncovered in Soviet archives that reveals the extent of Soviet involvement in equipping the North Korean invasion force and planning and directing the attack.

Cumings argues, reasonably, that the documents being released in Moscow and Beijing are incomplete -- and everyone knows that governments release documents for purposes of their own, generally unrelated to the scholar's pursuit of truth. Nonetheless, his credibility is undermined by his disregard for the enormously important documentation being published by the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center -- some of which could be used to strengthen parts of his argument. Alexandre Mansourov, for example, has produced evidence that the initial Soviet buildup of North Korea's military in 1947-49 was predicated on fears of an attack from the South, which was being armed and trained by the United States. Chen Jian's contributions provide support for some parts of Cumings' interpretation of China's role while raising questions about others. Cumings' insistence that the Chinese wanted only to defend the Pyongyang regime and had no desire to advance beyond the 38th parallel is puzzling in light of Chen's evidence that Mao wanted to drive the Americans off the peninsula and pressed his commander for one last offensive in spite of the troops' exhaustion and the extraordinary casualties they had suffered.

Cumings' analysis of the larger American role in Korea since 1945 does not flatter the national self-image. Korea's best chance for a united, democratic regime was probably Yo Un-hyong's Korean People's Republic, a left-leaning, popularly created government that was organized in late 1945 as American occupation forces arrived. Ignorant and misinformed, the American commander dismissed Yo's apparatus, leaving a chaotic situation that both rightists in the south and communists in the north exploited. Cumings concedes that the Soviets were active behind the scenes north of the 38th parallel, but would have us believe that Kim Il Sung was responsible for organizing the communist government. Rather than risk a communist-controlled unified Korea, the United States opted for a divided Korea, acquiescing in Rhee's brutal suppression of the rebellion that racked the South in 1948-49. On my first trip to Korea in 1969, a general-cum-university president in Taegu told me with some bitterness, "You Americans did to us what even the Japanese never did. You divided our country."

Seeking the roots of the anti-Americanism apparent in South Korea, Cumings stresses American complicity in Southern regimes' suppression of the Korean left, communist and noncommunist, throughout the post-World War II era. He points to American support for the dictatorial Rhee, Park Chung Hee, and especially the brutal and corrupt Chun Doo Hwan, architect of the suppression of the popular uprising in Kwangju in 1980. Cumings has found evidence embarrassing to the U.S. military command in Korea, which released Korean troops for operations in Kwangju, and I have yet to encounter a Korean who does not hold the United States responsible for failing to stop the massacre. When Ronald Reagan was induced to invite Chun to the White House in 1981, the invitation was alleged to be Chun's price for sparing the life of the condemned dissident leader Kim Dae Jung, but most Koreans perceived it as an American effort to grant Chun legitimacy.


Although the South Korean economic juggernaut seems to be faltering, the story of the South's rapid industrialization under the leadership of Park Chung Hee is fascinating. Cumings dismisses talk of the "miracle on the Han," seeing instead calculated development on the Japanese model. Park was the product of a Japanese military education, and his vision of the South's modernization approximated first his teachers' "bureaucratic-authoritarian" model, then the Japanese strategies Chalmers Johnson has described as belonging to the "developmental state." Cumings relies heavily on the work of Jung-en Woo (Meredith Woo-Cumings), who has shown how the South Korean state used its control of finance in the country, underwriting the great industrial conglomerates (chaebol) that emerged during Park's tenure. Cumings despises Park's antidemocratic, repressive politics and his establishment of the terrifying Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), but does not hide his grudging admiration for Park's economic accomplishments. Indeed, he even evinces some sympathy for Korean conservatives -- surprising in view of his impatience with American conservatives, progressives, and John Lewis Gaddis.

Much of the apparatus of repression that Park and his cohorts created in the 1960s remains in place in South Korea. The National Security Law, which allows the government to trample on its people's civil liberties, is still on the books. The KCIA is hardly more restrained than when the generals ran the country. Only the military seems relatively subdued, patient for the moment with the civilian government of Kim Young Sam. The government, despite its prosecution of Chun Doo Hwan and his protégé Roh Tae Woo for corruption and for their role in the 1979 coup and in Kwangju, has yet to demonstrate its acceptance of democratic processes, as evidenced by its recent parliamentary maneuvering to derail labor efforts to protect jobs and wages. At best it can be described as a chaebol-friendly one-party democracy on the Japanese model.


Cumings has visited North Korea, talked with its officials, and read its publications. He knows the country as well as any American can, but he would be the first to admit that the regime's secretiveness keeps him from knowing very much. Occasionally he seems to go too far in defending Pyongyang, as when he suggests that the 1983 terrorist bombing of the plane carrying the South Korean cabinet might have been carried out without Great Leader Kim Il Sung's knowledge (still "something of a mystery"), or when he argues that the offensive posture of North Korean troops is merely a response to the threatening posture of the South. But he balances these remarks by noting that "if and when the regime falls, we will probably learn of larger numbers [of political prisoners] and various unimaginable atrocities."

He does not deny that life in the North is infinitely less agreeable than in the South. Nonetheless, Cumings argues that North Korea is closer to a neo-Confucian kingdom than to Stalin's Russia, a unique political system in which Marxism-Leninism has been grafted onto Korean culture. Recent events, however, have outstripped some of his observations. One cannot dismiss all the news of famine and other calamities coming out of the North as the usual South Korean propaganda.

Cumings' discussion of North Korea's nuclear program is plausible and provocative. He suggests that around 1991 Kim Il Sung and his advisers, responding to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unfavorable international situation, decided to develop a "small-state deterrent" comparable to that of the Israelis. They worked aboveground, allowing surveillance to pick up sufficient activity to lend credence to the possibility that they had the bomb without announcing possession of it. They followed this with what Cumings describes as a "masterful" diplomatic game, exploiting American apprehensions to gain concessions, including the first high-level U.S.-North Korean talks.

If Pyongyang intended to build nuclear weapons, Cumings argues, it was justified in doing so, given American nuclear threats against it. But he also notes that whatever Kim Il Sung was up to, it led to the brink of disaster in 1994, when pressure mounted for the Clinton administration to bomb North Korean nuclear facilities. Cumings claims that the arguments of a small group of scholars, including himself, convinced Washington that Kim was sincere about giving up his nuclear program in exchange for better relations with the United States. I trust Cumings would not begrudge praise for the State Department's Robert Gallucci, principal negotiator of the October 1994 framework agreement that ended the crisis.


Today, as the situation in North Korea deteriorates, the moment is inauspicious for the withdrawal of American forces from the peninsula. Conditions are too volatile. American troops are useful not only as a deterrent to a desperate attack by the North but as a check on the United States' friends in Seoul. The South Korean military and the KCIA are not likely to see themselves as beneficiaries of reduced tensions. The scandals dogging South Korean political leaders and their corporate collaborators, combined with labor unrest, may well tempt elites to try Shakespeare's advice for Prince Hal, "to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Surely that is the basis for Seoul's expressed fear of American appeasement of the North, as it was for its exaggerated treatment of an incursion by a North Korean submarine last year.

It is not too soon, however, to draw down the U.S. presence in the city of Seoul and to return some of the real estate controlled by the American military so as to cut down on incidents with civilians before one like the rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa in 1995 further damages American forces' standing in South Korea. No other step would be so likely to reduce anti-American sentiment in the country without detriment to the U.S. strategic position. But when it is all over and the Yanks go home, leaving behind a peacefully unified nation -- as may well happen before the end of the millennium -- do not expect gratitude from the Korean people. Many, if not most, Koreans are unfriendly to the United States, for reasons Cumings indicates clearly. Korean culture has traditionally exhibited a distaste for foreigners that foreign troops' ethnic slurs and mistreatment of Korean women have only aggravated. Politically articulate South Koreans reject official U.S. claims of innocence in the Kwangju massacre. And now they are subjected to allegations by their leaders that the United States is selling them out to curry favor with the North. There is already talk in the National Security Council in Washington of South Korea slipping into China's orbit. Indeed, Chinese strategists play Seoul's game, contending that American efforts to ease tensions with Pyongyang are part of the Clinton administration's master plan for the containment of China.

Cumings, harshly critical of every previous administration, gives the Clinton team high marks for its handling of North Korea. Things could still go awry, but Cumings' verdict may well be proved right. Over the last few years Washington has been surprisingly sensitive to the sometimes conflicting concerns of Beijing and Tokyo as well as Seoul and Pyong yang without jeopardizing American interests in the region. On the North Korean nuclear issue, at least, the Chinese appear to be acting responsibly at last. If new Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her fresh crew of East Asianists can manage both to stay focused on the issues and to hold the president's attention, there may yet be a happy ending to the story of the two Koreas.

On the other hand, a reunified Korea with burgeoning ties to China will pose troublesome questions about U.S.-Korean mutual defense arrangements. Reunification will not elicit joy in Tokyo and will likely raise new issues for the Japanese-American alliance. There will still be work for those concerned with the security of East Asia.

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  • Warren I. Cohen is Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Consulting Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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